Rushdie on Free Speech and Religion

Salman Rushdie has an op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times objecting to a new proposed law in the UK that would criminalize “incitement to religious hatred.” This de facto blasphemy law is appalling and Rushdie, as usual, eloquently explains why.

I recently returned from a trip to Britain, where I discovered, to my consternation, that the government is proposing a law to ban what it is calling “incitement to religious hatred.” This measure, much beloved by liberals, is apparently designed to protect people “targeted” because of their religious beliefs.

But I see nothing to applaud. To me it is merely further evidence that in Britain, just as in the United States, we may need to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again.

That battle, you may remember, was about the church’s desire to place limits on thought. Diderot’s novel “La Religieuse,” with its portrayal of nuns and their behavior, was deliberately blasphemous: It challenged religious authority, with its indexes and inquisitions, on what was possible to say. Most of our contemporary ideas about freedom of speech and imagination come from the Enlightenment.

But although we may have thought the battle long since won, if we aren’t careful, it is about to be “un-won.”…

The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted, or in which they have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted, is absurd.

In the end, a fundamental decision needs to be made: Do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies, people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other’s positions. (But they don’t shoot.)

At Cambridge I was taught a laudable method of argument: You never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: People must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

I might quibble with the idea that you should never be rude to the person making an argument — some people deserve rudeness, in spades — I could not agree with him more about the terrible idea of protecting ideas from criticism by protecting those who hold them from being offended. When someone says “you have to respect my religion” (or political views, or anti-vaccination ideas, etc), I don’t even know what the hell that means. All it seems to mean is “you can’t tell me I’m wrong.” My response: The fuck I can’t.

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  • Childermass

    Ed, you must have missed that he refers to Tony Blair as prime minister and that the article is dated over a decade ago.

  • gshelley

    It was hardly much loved by liberals either. Most of the opposition was from people who would consider themselves liberal

  • blf

    Whilst not relevant in this case (that is quite an old letter on what is, as far as I know, now a dead issue), at the moment the UK is in the mist of an election with all sorts of hyperbolic batshite being claimed and “promised” and even cures baldness! Be extremely skeptical of any UK “political” news for the next month or so…

  • D. C. Sessions

    Whatever happened to “the right to be wrong?”

  • sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    A similar law was passed in Australia. The result was that religious devotees spent a lot of time attending one another’s places of worship listening for offensive language. Religious believers are much more offensive about other religious believers than any atheist would ever be.

  • Electric Shaman

    @5

    Whilst I am vehemently against the law that was passed in Australia, and am surprised at the number of people who are in favour of it, this part of your comment:

    The result was that religious devotees spent a lot of time attending one another’s places of worship listening for offensive language.

    I would say is in desperate need of some citation.

  • sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    “Desperate need”, Electric Shaman?

    At every Islamic lecture I have attended since litigation began there have been small groups of evangelical Christians with notepads and pens jotting down any comment that might later be used as evidence in future cases.

    Amir Butler, executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee.

    http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/06/03/1086203561682.html?from=moreStories&oneclick=true

  • Crudely Wrott, lurching towards recrudescence

    You never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks.

    – Rushdie

    .

    “Be as cunning as a serpent and as harmless as a dove.”

    Look that up in your King James Version!

  • matty1

    @3 So you’re saying the touch of Nick Clegg doesn’t cure baldness?

  • Nick Gotts

    In other news, Abraham Lincoln is rumoured to have been assasinated.

  • http://onhandcomments.blogspot.com/ left0ver1under

    When someone says “you have to respect my religion” (or political views, or anti-vaccination ideas, etc), I don’t even know what the hell that means.

    The only respect that religion deserves is the right to have it, and they’re already getting that. What they really asking for in that statement is deference and obedience, not respect.

    I want to see some British christian (or someone of another religion) who gets the point to grow a spine and say, “Your claim of incitement to religious hatred by [whoever is accused] against your religion is an incitement to religious hatred against mine.”

    Turn the tables on them. Show how those who claim to be victims are actually the aggressors, and use the same law to silence them. I want someone to show the UK just how ridiculous the law is, that it’s no different than everyone pointing fingers at each other and screaming “Witch!”

    As with fundies in Louisiana who objected to muslim charter schools or non-christian prayers, sometimes the only way people clue in is when their own ideas are used against them.

  • Electric Shaman

    @ 5 and 7

    Perhaps I read more into your comment than you intended, but the source you provided was an opinion piece from 2004 with anecdotal evidence from Mr Butler. Assuming the situation was as Mr Butler described, this situation only happened in Victoria at a time when there was a lawsuit between the Islamic Council of Victoria and Catch the Fire ministries. Granted this lawsuit was only possible through the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, however the lawsuit wasn’t initiated because of Muslims attending Christian services, it was initiated because of publications by Catch the Fire Ministries. According to allegations by Mr Butler in the piece you provided, Christians attending Muslim services and events was in response to this lawsuit.

    So yes, the very stupid Racial and Religious Tolerance Act led to a stupid lawsuit that led to alleged equally stupid vindictive behaviour by some Christians in Victoria over ten years ago. Perhaps that was all you intended to show with your comment. However, this does not indicate the legislation spurring a nationwide phenomena of religious organisations spying on each other for years which is what I read your comment as suggesting, and I think others could easily interpret your comment in the same way.

  • Nick Gotts

    Ed Brayton, left0ver1under@11,

    It’s usually a good idea to make sure you know what you’re talking about, particularly when commenting on affairs in a foreign country. As already pointed out, the linked column is from 2005. The Act as actually passed was considerably altered from the version Rushdie was rightly objecting to. It certainly has not prevented trenchant criticism of religion, including Islam. In fact, it seems hardly to have been used. It’s still arguable that it should not be on the statute book, but its actual effect has been minimal.